I’m in Cape Town, South Africa. It’s Valentines Day and I am falling in love. No, I don’t have a new boyfriend… but I have met amazing people that have opened my heart and my eyes. Everyday I have been brought to tears and to just as much laughter by the stories of the people here that form the rich tapestry of cultures. I’ve played with orphans, painted schools, and stayed in the home of a family in one of the townships and I’m amazed by everything that I’m learning about this fascinating place.
I’m traveling with a group of amazing women and men that are all a part of OTM’s 2010 Global Seva Challenge and we are on the Bare Witness Tour. The purpose of the Bare Witness tour is to create permanent, significant and sustainable change in the lives of poverty stricken children. We are here to create a sense of purpose, community and action through yoga and direct service and through this experience I trust that most of the people in our community will become leaders of social change.
Between volunteering our time, meeting with local leaders, and working on the various projects that OTM has funded, we have been learning about South African culture and history. Over the last few weeks, we’ve explored the townships and visited the District Six Museum where we learned about the 60,000 people who were wrenched from their homes, livelihoods, community centers and societal networks, and relocated to the bleak plains of the Cape Flats. I’ve witnessed extreme poverty, heard so many upsetting stories; and despite all of this, I’ve never experienced such an optimistic and forgiving community.
We also visited the notorious prison of Robben Island – home to former President Nelson Mandela for 17 years. Our prison guide was an ex-political prisoner of the island and shared his experience of prison life during Apartheid, a system of legal racial segregation enforced by the National Party government of South Africa between 1948 and 1993, under which the rights of the majority ‘non-white’ inhabitants of South Africa were oppressed by the minority white race. He shared personal memories of brutality, isolation, and victimization. It was heart breaking to hear him talk about the various policies the guards used to keep the prisoners from finding strength in their unity. And It was inspiring to see the resilience of the human spirit.
Nelson Mandela was in prison for 27 years and he came out willing to shake the hand of the man who kept him there. He and other political prisoners’ devotion to their struggle for freedom and justice blow me away. “I am grateful to God who enabled me to play a role in this reconciliation and forgiving process,” Mandela said. His attitude turned his country around and I have seen a similar grace in the people I have come into contact with. They have taught me something… I guess you could say that I’m experiencing the healing power of forgiveness on such a deep level and that is why I have fallen in love.
by Claudia Whitney
Claudia Whitney is a Global Seva Challenge 2010 participant.